Twenty-seven pedestrians died on railroad tracks this year in Washington, a fatality rate that is troubling transportation officials and safety advocates.

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Cale Tyler was on a three-mile “Beer Run” with the Tacoma Runners group in late November when he reportedly stepped around a railroad-crossing gate and was killed by a train.

Less than three weeks later, a 66-year-old Seattle man was fatally struck by a Sounder commuter train just north of Auburn.

And three days later, another man died in Auburn after an Amtrak train hit him, raising Washington’s train-pedestrian fatality total to 27 and topping the 20-year-annual record by two, according to BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas.

The number of such fatalities is troubling railroad officials, prompting new safety campaigns to steer people away from tracks and has led to a goal of zero accidents in 2016.

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“It’s extremely rare for over 20,” Melonas said. “This [2015] has been a problematic year.”

Nationwide, Washington ranked ninth in train fatalities between January and September in 2015, the most recent period available, according to a clearinghouse for railroad data administered by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). California topped the list with 119 deaths, followed by Texas with 50 of the total 619 nationwide.

Trespassers, train technology — quieter locomotives can pose greater risk — and the number and frequency of trains can affect fatality rates.

The state broke a 20-year record in 2015 (January-December 28, 2015)
The state broke a 20-year record in 2015 (January-December 28, 2015)

“Our biggest problem in this state is trespassing,” said Bob Boston, state Utilities and Transportation Commission railroad-safety supervisor. “People don’t understand it takes a mile or more to stop — that’s the length of 18 football fields — for an average freight train.”

Weather can create problems for pedestrians, too, making it harder to hear approaching trains or lowering visibility with fog, Melonas said. And with 2015’s unusually warm summer in Washington, more people may have been out and about near tracks next to waterways, perhaps impacting the year’s high death total, he said.

Fourteen people died during last year’s warmer months, between March and September, according to the FRA data. One of them, 17-year-old Kristi Bartz, was killed on a trestle at a popular swimming area in Silvana, northwest of Marysville, in May. She’s among the youngest of that year’s fatalities.

Suicides accounted for about one-third of Washington’s train-pedestrian fatalities in 2015, a percentage that fluctuates year by year, Melonas said. The rest of such deaths occurred because of “external” factors, such as people not paying attention to their surroundings or accidentally walking on the railways.

“A train is committed to the tracks,” Boston said. “There’s only three things an engineer can do: apply the emergency brakes, blow the horn and pray.”

Washington ranked ninth in the nation for train-track fatalities January -- September 2015.
Washington ranked ninth in the nation for train-track fatalities January — September 2015.

Tyler, 31, worked as an ultrasound technician with his wife, Jennifer Tyler, according to news reports and an obituary. The two were married a little more than 15 months when he died.

In addition to the 27 train-pedestrian fatalities, two motorists died in 2015 at railroad crossings, about the average annual number over the past decade.

And for nonfatal cases, the FRA reported 104 incidents in Washington before October that caused injuries ranging from minor bruises to critical amputations, a comparatively low number for the past 10 years.

It’s illegal to walk on or near tracks unless using a designated crossing area. Railroad police, sometimes in tandem with other law-enforcement agencies, issue trespassing citations that can include an average $500 fine, Melonas said.

Nearly all of 2015’s fatalities occurred on tracks operated by BNSF, which owns nearly half of Washington’s more than 3,000 miles of railroad lines, carrying Amtrak, Sound Transit and some Union Pacific locomotives.

Usually, Melonas said most years see about 16 or 17 train-pedestrian deaths in the state on average.

In light of 2015’s high total, the state chapter of Operation Lifesaver, a rail-safety nonprofit based in Olympia, is looking to grow its volunteer numbers and audience in Washington. Boston, the organization’s state coordinator, said the group is hoping to increase its safety presentations in schools and produce more video advertisements, for instance.

Recently, rail-safety advocates have been promoting messages to deter photographers from tracks. Boston said some like to shoot on what they think are abandoned tracks for wedding or senior photos, but the tracks turn out to be active. Railroad officials said they also are noticing more people taking selfies on or around tracks.

John Jeffrey Ray, 43, was posing for a photographer when an Amtrak train killed him in 2014. A musician for a show on the Las Vegas Strip, he was positioning himself so Mount Rainier showed in the picture, Boston said.

“They were so focused on what they were doing, they just didn’t hear the train,” he said. “Trains create an optical illusion; it’s impossible to tell how fast [a] train is going.”

Ron Pate, director of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) rail division, said state officials hope to boost their work with the nonprofit to get the messages out. The transportation department also is working on new ways to improve safety with local jurisdictions and railroads, given that freight- and passenger-train speeds in many places are increasing.

Speeds for freight trains typically range between 10 and 60 mph, though Amtrak lines can travel in areas at 79 mph maximum speed, Melonas said.

BNSF added more than 1,100 new locomotives in the past three years, Melonas said, and additions will continue as the state’s population grows, along with demand. The railroad is constantly making upgrades, some of which include replacing loud steel-on-steel equipment with quieter materials, he said.

Among the improvements, rail systems nationwide are installing technology that is designed to slow trains that exceed safe speeds, or prevent trains from colliding, called Positive Train Control, or PTC. Washington has nearly completed installing its share of the new system, featuring signal towers to communicate with satellites, Melonas said. There’s no timeline for when the system will be operable, he said.

“Rail is going to grow, Amtrak is going to grow, passenger opportunities will grow,” he said. “The projections are that freight will grow out here, and so should awareness.”